Our — all too often rather subconscious — tendency to compare ourselves with others and value ourselves in relation to them can have dire consequences. That old "need" to "keep up with the Joneses" can drive us to bankrupcy if we're not careful, but it can also affect the very core of our emotional being by destroying our self esteem and making us feel inferior no matter how much debt we take on.
Just why do we, humans, do this, how can we stop, and what happens if we do?
We're Pack Animals
Humans might be the smartest and most complex life forms on the planet, but deep down, we're really no more than animals. We're animals, and pack animals at that. As social animals, we care about our status in relation to the rest of the pack. Our societies are organized hierarchically, much like those of other pack animals such as wolves.
We want to be liked and respected. We want to not be less than those who surround us, and would prefer to be slightly better. And our pack-animal society has conditioned us to value instant gratification. The feelings that result from worries over how we fare in comparison to others even has a name now: status anxiety.
When discussing finances, that desire to achieve "upward mobility" is deemed healthy and motivational. Our need to keep up with the Joneses is about more than money, though. It is, primarily, ultimately about appearances — appearances that allow us to attain a desirable status within society. This drive can lead us to brag about our kids' successes in school, the universities we attended, the area we come from, and the spouse we married.
Outward Signs Of Wealth
It can also, as all too many have experienced themselves, lead us to seek to display outward signs of wealth. Cars, houses, flat-screen TVs, the after-school programs our kids attend and the latest cell phone can all become weapons in the battle to make those we want to impress be impressed. If keeping up with the Joneses is about creating impressions, however, it's good to remember that appearances can deceive.
While you go out of your way to make sure that your 10 year old gets the same new laptop that her friend has, because "you too want the best for your kids", after all, consider the possibility that your peers are just stuck in the same trap you are, forsaking retirement savings so they can keep up with you. A demonstrated 43 percent of Americans spend more than they earn, after all. We may all have the ability to look like emperors now, but in the process fail to see that most of us aren't wearing any clothes, as the tale goes.
How To Stop Comparing Yourself To Others
Being at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder sucks. Even when we're perfectly able to meet our basic needs for food, warmth, and shelter it does our egos in. There is a reason even poor people in developed countries are twice as likely to develop clinical depression than wealthier people. Poverty can make us feel inferior and even invisible, and being poorer than your self-selected peer group can make you feel just as bad as objective poverty.
When you really become conscious of those things, however, you can indeed escape that rat race and instead feel content with yourself. If you're guilty of having tried to keep up with the Joneses, you may benefit from asking yourself these tough but liberating questions.
Do Your Spending Habits Make You Happy?
OK, we know that choosing not to go on a vacation you really can't afford or saying no to that restaurant dinner to save some money can dampen our mood by lowering our social status. What does spending more than you can afford to do to your mood, though? Nothing good —financial worries are bound to be a main source of stress and a prime reason to keep you up at night. If you've ever made an impulse purchase that gave you tons of stress afterwards, you will know exactly what we're talking about.
Attaining services and goods that increase our social status may make us feel good for a while, but being financially responsible will give you a peace of mind that's even better.
Change Your Peer Group
Socializing primarily with people who have more than we do can make us feel depressed. If you recognize yourself here, perhaps it's simply time to change your social group. Move to a more modest neighborhood, become a hipster who wears thrift store clothes and eats vegan food out of principle rather than for financial reasons and hang out with those who do likewise, and volunteer to work with people who are less fortunate than you are. Quit looking at the instagram accounts of the super-rich, and stop watching shows about the most expensive private jets in the world.
See how fast your frame of reference changes. You may still feel the need to keep up with the Joneses, but they won't be the same Joneses!
Be Smug About Wisdom Rather Than Material Goods
The Joneses might be living a Martha-Steward worthy life from the outside, but chances are that they are debt-ridden, insecure, and depressed on the inside. Chances are that the Joneses aren't keeping up with themselves either, but even if they are, it has been proven that money doesn't make them happy either.
Humans may be inherently motivated by the "need" to be slightly better than others, but that need can be met in numerous different ways. Why not feel superior in the knowledge that you are more financially responsible than your neighbors instead, and that you were able to sleep better at night by not buying that new car?